Opinion

University Rankings: A Look at How Some of the Major Listings Work

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

In a world that is constantly running after more labels, “the best brand” or “the top ten”, it’s no surprise that university rankings have become increasingly popular too. While some education scholars and advocacy groups question the accuracy and usefulness of university rankings, people still want them, including many university administrators. And many organizations produce them.

So, what exactly are university rankings? What criteria and methods do the organisations that produce them employ?

What Is Ranking?

Rankings of higher education institutions are perceived as a way of assessing and comparing universities based on a variety of characteristics. Because each ranking organisation uses different quantitative variables, none of the rankings can provide a comprehensive picture of an institution’s capabilities.

Rankings take into account a variety of factors such as endowment values and financial health, gauges of research excellence and/or influence, admissions statistics, graduation rates, levels of internationalisation levels, ties to industry, and reputation, among others.

The three best-known global rankings are the QS World University Rankings, produced by QS Quacquarelli Symonds; the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE); and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produced by ShanghaiRanking Consultancy.

Following are brief descriptions of the methodologies used by each.

QS World University Rankings

This ranking is produced annually by QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a U.K.-based provider of higher-education services and analytics.

The QS system is divided into three parts: the global overall ranking of 1,300 universities around the world; subject rankings, which identify the best universities for 51 subjects and five composite faculty areas; and regional tables that rank institutions in five regions, namely Asia, Latin America, Emerging Europe and Central Asia, the Arab Region, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

To be considered in the QS World University Rankings, institutions must serve both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as do research in at least two of the five broad faculty areas (arts and humanities; engineering and technology; social sciences and management; natural sciences; and life sciences and medicine).

Rankings take into account a variety of factors such as endowment values and financial health, gauges of research excellence and/or influence, admissions statistics, graduation rates, levels of internationalisation levels, ties to industry, and reputation, among others.

The QS World University Rankings evaluate universities on six performance parameters related to research, teaching, employability, and internationalisation:

  • Academic reputation (worth 40 percent of the overall score). This factor is based QS’s Academic Reputation Index, which in turn is based on a survey sent to more than 100,000 academics worldwide each year.
  • Employer reputation (10 percent). This metric is based on a survey that collects employers’ opinions of the competence of a university’s graduates.
  • The student-to-faculty ratio (20 percent).
  • Citations for research per academic member (20 percent).
  • Faculty who are from other countries (5 percent).
  • International students as a percentage (5 percent).

THE World University Rankings

These rankings are produced annually by Times Higher Education, also based in the United Kingdom, which publishes a higher-education-focused news magazine and provides higher-education data products.

From 2004 to 2009, THE worked with QS Quacquarelli Symonds  to produce the joint THE-QS World University Rankings, before turning to Thomson Reuters for a new ranking system that was in use from 2010 to 2013. In 2014, the company renewed its contract with Elsevier, which currently provides the data used to create the rankings.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are based on 13 performance indicators, which are grouped into five categories. If an institution does not educate at the undergraduate level or if its research output falls below a specific threshold, it is excluded. Universities’ ratings for each of the five categories can be sorted in the published results, but not for the specific indicators within each category.

The five categories of performance indicators are:

  • Teaching and the learning environment (worth 30 percent of the overall score). Half of the weight of this metric (or 15 percent of the overall score) is determined by a reputation survey, with smaller weights given to factors like the share of academic staff who hold doctorates (6%), the staff-to-student ratio (4.5%), the doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio (2.25%), and institutional income (2.25 %).
  • Research reputation (30 percent). This category is measured largely by a university’s reputation for research excellence among its peers, based on survey responses. Other indicators considered include research income and productivity.
  • Citations as a measure of research influence (30 percent). This indicator is based on the average number of times a university’s published work is cited by scholars globally.
  • International profile (7.5 percent). Three factors get equal weight in this category: proportion of international students, proportion of international staff, and international collaboration as measured by the proportion of published research with at least one international co-author.
  • Income from industry (2.5 percent). This category is based on how much research income an institution earns from industry, scaled against the number of academic staff it employs.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities

The ARWU ranking, often known as the Shanghai Ranking, ranks institutions whose alumni or staff have earned certain distinctions related to research excellence. These include institutions that have Nobel laureates, winners of the Fields Medal, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature or Science, or a considerable number of papers indexed by the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) or the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI).

Rankings aren’t the only tool students should consider when deciding where to enroll. But they may be helpful when students are choosing between two or more universities, or are sorting out which programmes are considered the best in their field or the most highly valued by employers.

It evaluates institutions according to six performance parameters.

  • Alumni (worth 10 percent of the overall score). This metric is based on the number of Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners among an institution’s graduates, with higher weight given to more recent honorees.
  • Awards (20 percent). This metric considers the number of staff who have received Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics, as well as Fields Medals in mathematics, with more recent honorees receiving more weight.
  • Highly cited researchers (20 percent). This metric is based on the number of staff selected as Highly Cited Researchers by Clarivate Analytics.
  • Papers published in Nature and Science (20 percent). This metric uses a four-year timeframe and the amount of publications published in the journals Science and Nature. This category does not apply to institutions that concentrate in social sciences and humanities.
  • Indexed papers (20 percent). This is based on the number of papers indexed in the Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index in the previous calendar year.
  • Performance per capita (10 percent). The weighted scores of the above five indicators divided by the number of full-time equivalent academic staff.

How Arab Universities Fare in Rankings

The QS Arab Region University Rankings is one of the five independent regional rankings produced by QS Quacquarelli Symonds, in addition to its World University Rankings. Its 2022 report featured more than 180 universities.

The most-represented countries are Saudi Arabia and Egypt with 31 ranked universities apiece. They are followed by Iraq (22), Jordan (20), the United Arab Emirates (15), and Lebanon (12).

King Abdulaziz University (KAU) led the list with an overall score of 100. The rest of the top 10 institutions were as follows:

  1. Qatar University
  2. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
  3. American University of Beirut
  4. United Arab Emirates University
  5. King Saud University
  6. Sultan Qaboos University
  7. American University of Sharjah
  8. Khalifa University of Science and Technology
  9. University of Jordan

Limits and Alternatives

Rankings aren’t the only tool students should consider when deciding where to enroll. But they may be helpful when students are choosing between two or more universities, or are sorting out which programmes are considered the best in their field or the most highly valued by employers.

Still, students should keep in mind that rankings have limits, including intended and accidental biases. Those problems, along with concerns about over-reliance of some governments and policy-making bodies on rankings as indicators of quality or performance, have prompted some higher-education groups to consider alternative strategies for comparing institutions.

One approach that has gained attention is known as benchmarking. Benchmarking allows institutions to measure their performance against the top, average, or worst performing institutions in their category.

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One example of a benchmarking system is the University Governance Screening Card Project, which brings together over 100 universities from seven Middle East and North Africa nations. This effort, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the Center for Mediterranean Integration, aims to improve institutional governance and accountability by implementing capacity-building measures that are evidence-based and inclusive.

Participating institutions can compare notes with their peers on governance, quality, and management issues. To improve their performance, many of them have produced specific action plans and accompanying capacity-building strategies.

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By: Eman Elbedawy

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